Foglio's Field Notes

Leif Utne's random rants, musings and meditations

Archive for September 15th, 2010

Why MoveOn Should Introduce Me to My Neighbors

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Recently, my dad proposed in his back-page column in the May/June Utne Reader, titled “An Open Letter to MoveOn,” that the nation’s premier progressive organization should go beyond issue-driven campaigns and “lead a community organizing movement across America.” (Yes, in case you’re wondering, my dad founded Utne Reader, and I worked there as a writer and editor for eight years.)

I couldn’t agree more. I especially like his suggestion that MoveOn stage a series of large revival-style cultural events designed to introduce members to each other:

MoveOn could kick off the movement by hosting stadium-sized events, harking back to 19th-century chautauquas and tent shows. Attendees would sit together according to particular affinities: parents of young children, schoolteachers, health care workers, clergy, small-business owners, elders. Like-minded participants could share their ideas about particular issues, like clean, green energy and single-payer health care. Or, if seating were assigned based on zip code and postal route, people would meet their neighbors in a positively charged environment.

All this would be interspersed with musical entertainment, stand-up polemic, and perhaps a Jumbotron visit from Obama himself. Consider it an extended-family/neighborhood reunion in which participants would meet some long-lost relatives for the very first time.

After the event, attendees would all receive lists of the 20 other participants who live closest to them. House parties would follow. Instead of discussing issues, we would simply get to know each other by telling each other our stories of “self, us, and now.”

(Telling stories of “self, us, and now” is a technique used in the Camp MoveOn organizer trainings, one of which my dad attended last year, and which inspired his column.)

I’d be thrilled to attend a rally of 5, 10 or 20 thousand MoveOn members in my area, knowing that I’d hear great bands and speakers and have a chance to meet and converse with other progressives in my neighborhood.

People often accuse MoveOn of mere “clicktivism,” of sapping the activist energies of grassroots progressives by calling on people to sign petition after petition on narrow issue campaigns. People either feel they can just click and be done with it, or they get tired of the incessant calls to action and tune out, the argument goes.

That argument is unfair. MoveOn has done more in the past decade than any other organization to build the American progressive movement, to give it a sense of identity and an outlet to flex its political muscle. The group has pioneered new models of online advocacy and fundraising, developing many of the tools and strategies that are now de rigeur in both issue and electoral campaigns across the political spectrum. Most importantly, MoveOn has experimented with new ways to move people from online to offline. Every person who signs a MoveOn petition is invited to take further action — write or call Congress, donate to the campaign, attend a rally, vigil or organizing meeting. MoveOn was largely responsible for mobilizing people to turn out on what became the largest global day of protest in history, the simultaneous anti-war rallies in hundreds of cities across the US and around the globe on the eve of the Iraq War in 2003. And if it weren’t for MoveOn paving the way, and providing critical early support, the presidential campaigns of both Howard Dean and Barack Obama might never have been possible.

Yet some criticism is justified. MoveOn’s sheer scale (5 million members) and obsession with numbers can make individual activists feel insignificant and campaigns feel impersonal.

As the de facto connective tissue of much of the progressive movement, MoveOn has an opportunity to go beyond issue campaigns and strengthen the movement by introducing its members to each other. Not under the rubric of any particular campaign or action. Simply connecting people to each other at the local level so they can start conversations and build community would be a powerful step toward revitalizing and re-engaging progressives, many of whom tuned out after pouring their hearts out to put Obama in the White House.

Introducing MoveOn members (like myself) to each other and inviting us to share stories of “self, us, and now,” and to start conversations about our hopes and dreams for our families, neighborhoods, country and planet could be the best way to inoculate the body politic against the cynicism and hatred emanating from the Tea Party, Congress, and the media. It would surely lead to more committed local activism, would surface new issues and ideas, and could rekindle the sense of hope and possibility that drove so many of us to pound the pavement and open our wallets for Obama in 2008. As my dad says: “This could be the start of an earthshaking nationwide movement.”

So how about it, MoveOn? Please introduce me to my neighbors.

Written by leifutne

September 15, 2010 at 5:13 pm